What Price, Culture?

The world is talking about the recent signing into law of Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage Prohibition bill. Perhaps unsurprisingly, significantly more of us Nigerians seem to be in support of the new law than against it.

But stories of police rounding up ‘gay suspects’ to torture confessions from them, and the particular incident of a young man who was publicly flogged, have sent chills down my spine. We mustn’t forget that these are our children, our sons and our brothers.

All too often as a nation, I think we allow ourselves to be swept along by high emotion and popular sentiment, not stopping to consider what we do, why we do it, or the implications of our actions. We justify this refusal to debate, usually, by brandishing culture or religion. Where one fails, the other usually does the trick. And when both guns blaze, I generally find that at the root of that protest lies fear.

 René Descartes (a devout Roman Catholic) once said, ‘Cogito ergo sum’: ‘I think, therefore, I am’; meaning that the proof of our humanity lies in the fact that we can reason. If this is correct (and I am persuaded that he was a reasonable man), we cannot — indeed, we must not — allow a witch-hunt stoked by nothing other than fear. And certainly not when the cost of that fear is our very claim to humanity.

Our presidency justifies the new law on the basis that “[it] is in line with our cultural and religious beliefs”.

That we are a deeply religious people isn’t in doubt, and that our traditional beliefs generally consider same sex relationships to be an abomination is also true. But neither of these facts justifies the very dangerous precedent we have just set.

Make no mistake, what we have done is to take individual freedoms from a section of our society and protect our right to abuse, restrict, harass and oppress that minority by codifying it into law.

The inevitable persecutions have begun, but at what price, this preservation of ‘culture’, and is it worth it?

***

Culture by its nature is adaptive, evolving to reflect the needs, experiences and values of a people over time. It worries me then that we are so opposed to change that we are prepared to legislate matters of culture, forcing the rigidity of something that naturally is supposed to change. Remember, at one time in our history, it was culture to kill newborn twins, and I’m told, to eat the hearts of those we defeated in battle.

Shouldn’t we, rather than dig our heels in, hope and trust that we have taught our children to be wise and brave enough to make the cultural decisions necessary for their own time?

As for religion, that cannot be allowed to become a matter for state in a country like Nigeria, divided by so many things and split right across the middle by two fundamentally different ideologies.

While Islam and Christianity may both condemn homosexuality, they condemn other things that the state has not declared illegal. The reason the state can freely do this, that is, establish its own rules outside of religion, is that our Constitution expressly provides that Nigeria is a secular state, when it states that ‘Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion’. This means that the religious argument, though convenient and provocative, when put forward by a secular government, can only be fallacious.

And economics? It’s hard to imagine that in the face of all the economic and social challenges we currently face — unemployment, corruption, crime, poor education, etc. etc., — public resources are best applied to victimising a section of our society because they are different.

I’d rather see resources going after those who put lives or property at risk, by holding guns to our heads or by taking means for food, education, healthcare and income — the makings of life — from the reach of our children. Locking up young men, otherwise legitimate and productive members of our society, for a decade, bringing additional pressure on a judicial system that is already overloaded, doesn’t strike me as good economics.

One might try and make a political argument. But I struggle to see how an action like this does anything other than undermine our international credibility and potentially alienate what valuable political allies Nigeria has left.

The new Act had been a long time coming, with each revision becoming broader in its scope and more severe in its punishment. The more, it seemed, that the international community condemned their actions, the more stony-faced our lawmakers became. How better to prove Nigeria’s sovereignty, if not by cutting off her nose to spite her face?

If culture, religion, economics and politics, then, don’t sufficiently justify our new law, we are left in the realm of morality, of what is universally right and what is universally wrong. This is where we hit a brick wall. Rational discussions of morality in the face of deeply held religious beliefs generally result in circularity, since religion asks first that you believe, and in order to do so, one must suspend proof.

So, instead of attempting to debate notions of morality, I ask instead that we consider this: what do we risk by allowing any amongst us to freely choose their own lives without imposing our own sense of morality on them?

Homosexuality is not ‘contagious’ — that is as true as the fact that you are reading these words. This, I think, is where that irrational fear I described comes in.

But what have we to fear?

E.


Originally published at www.premiumtimesng.com on January 19, 2014.

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